Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Haa Blows the Happiness Curve

May 29th, 2009 · 6 Comments

A few years back, Bhutan rather famously announced that it would no longer be a slave to the concept of Gross Domestic Product. Instead, it would measure its progress in terms of Gross National Happiness, as measured by a regular survey of its citizens. (The exact methodology can be found here).

This announcement attracted its fair share of gentle mockery, in part because we’re so accustomed to thinking of happiness as a purely subjective concept. But the lampooning hasn’t stopped Bhutan from refining its GNH formula, and the government-run Centre for Bhutan Studies recently announced its latest results, touting them as the most accurate to date:

How is happiness calculated?

Consider that hours of sleep (a1) and trust in media (a2) are two examples of the 72 indicators that can be measured on a scale of 0 to 1.

The formula is: GNH index = 1 –[(a1+a2+…..+a72)/72]

There is one more method to calculate happiness, but the above one gives a more efficient result, Tshoki Zangmo, a researcher with the Centre for Bhutan Studies, told BT.

Following the formula, Bhutan’s GNH index after a survey of 950 respondents from 12 dzongkhags was 0.812. This means that among the 950 respondents the happiness level is 81%.

The dzongkhags surveyed included Dagana, Tsirang, Wangduephodrang, Samtse, Zhemgang, Pemagatshel, Samdrup Jongkhar, Trashigang, Trashiyangtse, Gasa, Haa, and Thimphu.

The survey conducted between December 2007 to March 2008 showed Haa to be happiest district with an index of 0.8273 and Dagana to be the least happy with an index of 0.8026.

Each respondent was asked a long list of questions and an interview took about half-a-day to be completed.

If the 72 indicator indexes are first weighted to the nine domains, the GNH index is 0.805 and the happy-dzongkhag list changes with Wangduephodrang topping the list with a weighted index of 0.818 and Trashigang trailing as the least happy with 0.790.

The survey was an improved version of the three-month pilot conducted between September 2006 and January 2007 where 350 people in nine dzongkhags were interviewed. It took about seven to eight hours for one interview.

We somehow doubt such an approach could work in the United States, alas. Few of us are hardy enough to endure even 15 minutes with a census taker, to say nothing of a half day. Perhaps if liquor was served…

We are, of course, compelled by Microkhan House Rules to end any Bhutan post with a nod to Peter de Jonge’s classic New York Times piece, “Television’s Final Frontier.” In pondering the impact of Bhutan late entry into the TV Era, de Jonge came up with one of the best magazine quips in history:

Admittedly, inner Bhutan has a transcendent tranquillity. An hour’s walk in either direction can take you from tropical jungles to an alpine ridge. Yet how many Bhutanese will want to stay put in their cozy villages once they’ve glimpsed the hubbub beyond? History strongly suggests that few people will choose to spend eight hours a day knee deep in mud behind an ox if there’s an alternative.

Funny ’cause it’s true!


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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Gramsci

    In twenty years I think economists will have developed happiness indices closer to what Bhutan is after. The move of behavioral economics to psychology, and the move of psychology into “positive psychology,” augurs refined thinking about what actually satisfies human needs, including simple things that won’t need to be tossed in a landfill in favor of a brand new GDP-pumping updated version. Also coming twenty years from now? Gillette’s 11-blade razor.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: Agreed on the shortcomings of GDP as a measuring stick. The big problem with the Bhutan model, though, is that it tries to take something subjective (survey responses to Q’s like, “Are you satisfied with X?”), then turn it into something objective. Not sure that approach can ever work.

    My other problem with GNH is that it’s being measured in a one-party country with virtually no independent media or check on government power. So do people feel free to answer honestly in such an environment? And how can we verify the veracity of the results? (Keep in mind that the article I link to above is through a government-controlled paper.)

    BTW, I’ve tried the five-blade razor. It is, indeed, as great as advertised. It’s also priced in billionaire territory. So we’re back to CVS Mach 3 knockoffs, alas.

  • Gramsci

    Point taken, especially about gov’t control. I don’t like the 4 blade as as the original 3, but I guess I just needed the next odd number.

  • Jordan


    As multi-blade razors seem like a classic case of diminishing returns, someone needs to do a study to figure out where the optimal intersection between number of blades and price exists.

    There was a pretty significant increase in quality when I switched from two-blade to four-blade razors, but I can’t imagine a sufficiently large increase from four to five to justify the increase in cost.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Spoken like a judicious man whose amps don’t go up to 11.

    Thankfully, my facial hair is, uh, spotty. (Tried to grow a playoff beard a few years back–results weren’t pretty.) The three blades does me well enough, and will enable me to save enough to send the tyke to…well, maybe not college, but at least air-conditioner repair school

  • A Hole in the Happiness Theory?

    […] So many statistical goodies to sift through in the latest report on American asylum cases (PDF). But by far our favorite oddity can be glimpsed in the chart above. What’s going on with the Bhutanese? Only three citizens of the isolated kingdom claimed asylum in the U.S. three years ago, and then none in 2007. But then the hordes came last year. What gives? Are the Bhutanese masses far less happy than their monarchical government so famously claims? […]